Desire to be on public land is skyrocketing right now, and nowhere is that more true than the mud-season mecca of Moab, Utah. Last week, I—along with everyone else in a 12-state radius—rolled into town looking to lizard myself in the sun and avoid falling off my bike. Instead, we found jammed trailheads and the constant drone of ATVs.
Crowded out and COVID-stressed, I headed north. Less than an hour from the churn of Canyonlands National Park, just outside the town of Green River, I had the Athena Trail to myself. It was completely quiet except for the whir of my cassette and the huff of my own breathing, my bike rolling over the slickrock and striated sandstone. The trail climbs to an overlook of the Green River then drops into a twisty valley of hoodoos striped red, cream, and gold.
The trail was named after the Athena Rocket—this stretch of ruddy desert was the Green River Test Site, an outpost of the White Sands Missile Range. From 1964 to 1975, the U.S. Air Force and Army launched 244 missile tests here. The site was abandoned after the test, reclaimed by the Army in the early 2000s, and turned into trails in 2018 as part of the city’s plan to attract tourists.
Sure, it’s not the uber-aesthetic red rock of Moab. But Moab is overrun with tourism, and it’s causing soil erosion and damage to historic sites. Athena, on the other hand, provides uncrowded trail access and a reason for visitors to come to a town that’s been riding the economic roller coaster of extraction. It’s an example of how to take an unloved and torn-up landscape, scrub the detritus of past environmental exploitation, and turn it into land that’s useful to the public.
It’s happened successfully in other places, too, where contaminants have been cleaned up, cleared out, or capped. Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm, Minnesota, used to be iron mine pits. The Hanford Reach National Monument, in eastern Washington, is a wildlife refuge on a corner of the country’s biggest nuclear clean-up, where hikers can visit the buffer zone away from the test site.
Reclaiming damaged landscapes for recreation takes pressure off of other precious places. And it creates more spaces to be outside, especially in areas where people haven’t previously had access to trails or parks. It’s not easy—it takes funding, will, consensus, and a plan to convert a mine or a missile range into a mountain bike trail. But right now several pieces of policy are in play that could shape how we re-envision and restore these landscapes.
Historically, we’ve designated the most beautiful places for recreation and reflection, but now we have to expand the idea of protection and use.
In March, Representative Matt Cartwright, from Pennsylvania’s eighth district, introduced the RECLAIM Act, and a bill to amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, both of which would designate money to states and tribes for cleaning up and repurposing land and water destroyed by mining. It’s a pitch to contribute toward the estimated $280 billion it would take to clean up all the abandoned mines in the U.S., and it’s gained traction in the Senate, too. One of the major goals of the RECLAIM Act is to “revitalize coal communities,” and build projects that can bring other sources of income to these areas.
The bills dovetail with a bigger conversation about conserving and smartly using lands for the future. On May 6, President Biden announced his ten-year America the Beautiful plan, the beginning of his vision to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 (a goal proponents are calling “30x30” for short). This would mean not just protecting wilderness areas and national parks, but private land, farms of all sizes, and urban green spaces, using public-private partnerships and conservation easements.
Skeptics of Biden’s plan say it’s broad-stroked and sketchy, and that it has to do more to counter the historically racist practices of conservation and preservation. They say it has to be both realistic and bold. I agree. And that’s one of the places where reclamation can come in.
The question of what should “count” as conservation came up regularly in the plan’s early listening sessions, according to the report. It’s a crucial point, because the focus of 30x30 conservation can’t just be to allocate more precious and pristine wilderness. It must also include restoration and reuse of previously damaged landscapes, create access in disadvantaged communities, and uphold treaty rights with tribes. Nature will not heal on its own.
Fortunately, restoration is one of the main tenets of the plan, and recreation is a part of that. The broad goals include more parks and outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived areas (40 percent of the overall benefits from what’s vaguely referred to as “relevant federal investments” will go to disadvantaged communities), and the implicit understanding is that the conservation projects will increase access for outdoor recreation. The report also notes that, “Outdoor recreation contributes an estimated $460 billion to the nation’s economy, with mayors and local leaders recognizing parks, beaches, and open spaces as indispensable infrastructure for livable and prosperous communities, for purifying air and drinking water, and in defending against the impacts of climate change.”
Recreation is not a panacea. We do harm. We cut up landscapes with footprints, tire tracks, and trash. We shit where we shouldn’t. Trail building isn’t going to stop climate change. But as the report noted, “Improved access to public lands and waters—in an equitable, well-managed and sustainable manner—can broaden and deepen connections to nature and its benefits, and encourage the next generation of outdoor stewards.”
Historically, we’ve designated the most beautiful places for recreation and reflection, but now, if we want to hit ambitious conservation targets like the 30x30 plan, we have to expand the idea of protection and use. We’ve already wrecked and altered so many landscapes and then left them drilled or bombed or leaching waste. By reclaiming lands like the Athena Site, and by turning them into useful recreation areas, we can address a handful of the most pressing land use issues at the same time.
I want beauty and solitude and places to move my body outside, but I also want to know that I’m not causing unnecessary harm. By reclaiming damaged places we can get all of those things and more.